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The Roman World from above and below

Author: David Van Tol, History Teacher

22 Jul 2016


In June 2016, I travelled to the Vesuvius region and to Rome, supported by the 2016 Wenona Teaching Fellowship. As stated in my proposal, Empire and Everyday: Archaeological Perspectives of the Roman World, I sought to develop my own investigation into the structural remains of the Ancient Rome.

While the legacy of the emperors is seen in grandiose monuments such as the Colosseum and Pantheon, everyday Roman life was preserved as a time-capsule in 79 AD, when Mount Vesuvius covered the Campanian towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum in a sea of ash and pumice. The aim of my fellowship study was to understand how the study of the past may be approached from above and below.

In the first week of the study, I volunteered on the Pompeii Food and Drink Project, a 'non-invasive surface investigation' conducted under the auspices of the Archaeological Institute of America. Now in its fifteenth year, the Food and Drink Project seeks to document all evidence for the consumption of food and drink in Pompeii. This occurred not just in private houses but also in roadside ‘takeouts’, street corner shrines, grand villas and public squares.

I was particularly interested in the work conducted in the famous House of the Faun and Villa of Mysteries. Here, I scribed for an academic archaeologist who noted all food and drink usage of various rooms, and the extant evidence that existed to support this. Videography and drawing teams documented all identified features, creating a visual ‘walk through’ of rooms and associated spaces. In the evenings, lead researchers gave lectures on related topics such as food in the Roman world, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD, and – my personal favourite – the production of garum (fish sauce), a Roman delicacy which had MSG levels that far surpassed acceptable levels today.

I later took the ‘Flashback to Pompeii' 3D Virtual Reality tour, which was supported by a traditional commentary. At regular intervals, I donned a 3D headset and found myself in a digital world resembling what Pompeii was thought to have looked like over 2,000 years ago. I could turn 360 degrees to experience the spatial features of places such as the large theatre, the Odeon, the forum, a brothel, the Basilica, public baths, the House of Menander, a roadside thermapolium, and the Temples of Apollo and Jupiter.

In Rome, I focused on the monuments that speak of the greatness; either real or manufactured, and of those who commissioned them. In Ancient Rome, the purpose of any great monument or public space was ultimately to commemorate someone or something, and in doing so magnify the one who commissioned it. This was achieved though the creation of spaces for public utility.

It’s interesting that in many cases, the ancient writers don’t mention the architects of these great monuments. We know a great deal about the gladiators who fought in the Colosseum, but nothing about those who designed and built it. This could be because that in Roman times, the glory of the monument was meant to guarantee the immortality of the one who had commissioned it, not the one who designed it. It wasn’t until the Renaissance that the notion of the architect as a genius emerged.

The 2016 Wenona Teaching Fellowship helped me develop a clearer picture of the lives of ordinary Romans – in particular their eating and drinking habits, as well as the technologies and industries that supported it. I like to call this ‘archeology from below’ as its purpose is to understand the lives of those who the official record has ignored. These include plebeians, slaves, women, children, the colonised, and others who, for whatever reason, lacked the literacy or influence to leave words that lasted.

Investigative archeology, such as that conducted by the Pompeii Food and Drink Project has taught me the value of utilising a range of methodologies to help interpret a past that cannot speak for itself.

Read more about David Van Tol’s Fellowship on his blog.